Just recently I learned that one of my best friends will be moving very soon to the other side of the country. In the interest of full-disclosure I should note that he has lived the last couple of decades some 400 miles away, and, while in the past we managed to visit each other at least once or twice a year, over the last decade circumstances made that more difficult, and in fact it’s actually been several years since I’ve seen him, though we have stayed in touch through other means. So this shouldn’t really bother me. But it does.
True, we never managed to get together, but there always existed the possibility: “One of these days I should jump in the car and head down there.” But when the mileage is measured not in hundreds but thousands, the reality hits: I may well never see him again. Perhaps one of the worst parts is my recent realization that I have been missing seeing his kids growing up, which has been part of what has triggered the growing importance children have had for me. Now, I will probably never be able to make up that loss.
Okay, this is pretty maudlin. Who cares, right? Nobody, except the timing of this event is significant, coming as it does at the end of the school term, when I’m already a bit vulnerable. Something that most people do not realize is that teachers have a lot of experience dealing with separation and loss. It happens to us on a regular basis. No one warns you in the teacher ed courses just how hard it can be. Good teachers become very attached to their students; they form a significant part of our lives, sometimes opening up to us in ways they do for few others. This is particularly true for teachers who teach composition, where we see our students’ strongest opinions, experiences and values laid out. We come to know them quite well. And they get to know us, often more than we intend or even realize.
And then, it’s over. The students are gone, and with very few exceptions, we never see them again. There is a profound sense of loss that no one who hasn’t experienced it can understand. We experience it at least once a year. We steel ourselves for it, but it’s always hard. And sometimes it can go wrong.
We read the news about this or that teacher accused of having an affair with a student. We are shocked, offended, outraged, demanding justice for the “victim,” no mercy for the “predator.” Well, at least we do when it’s a male teacher. When it’s a female teacher and a male student, we make the appropriate noises, but we don’t mean it. The men wink at each other, calling the student “lucky” and “a stud,” and fantasizing about how “hot” the teacher is. Another example of a pervasive double-standard, though, thankfully, that’s changing.
But while most people are unanimous in condemning the teacher; other teachers remain largely quiet. Not because we condone what has happened, but because we understand it, and are silently mourning a teacher who fell off the precipice that we all stand on. When such an incident is reported, the teacher will insist he or she was in love with the student, and often the student will say the same thing. Others say the teacher is lying and the student was an innocent who was corrupted by a master manipulator. But in many cases (granted, not all), they are telling the truth: that tremendous emotional connection that forms between student and teacher went sour. The teacher did fail, but not the way we think.
I feel strongly for my own students, and come to care about them, and I pride myself on the fact that many of them seem to genuinely like me. But there is a barrier that I must always maintain, and never cross. I cannot get too close. I must limit the forms of contact. I must remind myself that this is my student, not my friend. And we cannot expect the students to play a part in keeping the separation, though many do so. Any teacher can tell you how hard that barrier can be to maintain, and I’ve known teachers who slipped, and allowed students to get too emotionally close, with the cost of great pain to both parties.
I’m not making excuses for teachers who fail to maintain that distance, nor the ones who really do take advantage of vulnerable students. I am fortunate that, as a college teacher, the danger is less than for teachers who teach minors. Indeed, on occasion a former student has remained in contact and something resembling a genuine friendship has come out of it. But that comes long after there is any chance of the student-teacher relationship continuing. Though there is no explicit prohibition against college teachers having relationships with students who are not in their classes, it’s very strongly discouraged, and even the appearance of impropriety can destroy careers.
So we must keep that distance. And it’s just as well, for it helps make the inevitable separation less painful. As it turns out, while we feel we get to know our students closely, in most cases we really don’t, and, while we see them as a central part of our lives, that ends at the classroom door, and the barrier we fought so hard to maintain wasn’t really needed. The emotional bond we work to prevent from occurring was never going to occur anyway. We remind ourselves we are their teachers, not their friends, but they don’t need reminding; most of them do not see us as anything more.
That’s not a bad thing. We already play a very important role in their lives, helping guide them toward the future. This is true from kindergarten to grad school. That role is why we became teachers. If the cost of playing that role is a lifetime of sad farewells, it’s a cost well worth paying.
Not that it makes it any easier. Nor easier to say farewell to my friend.